Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Lets taco 'bout last night

So, against all odds, I made it to the end of the holiday and now I'm finally at the end of my American blog posts. Sure there was the afternoon where we went to Venice Beach and I made the Ewing eat poke with avocado (kinda normal), pizza with avocado (kinda weird) and ice cream with avocado (very weird). And then there was the time we went to the Wynn buffet and ate prime rib and beef ribs and mac and cheese (despite my carb ban, so I could fit in even more food), before the Ewing went wild on the wheel of gelato (7 desserts...I ATE 7 DESSERTS - TE). But you're just going to have to imagine all that.

And yes, in case you're wondering, that is my ankle. Have you really been to Vegas without getting a tattoo at two in the morning after watching two of your good friends getting married in the Neon Boneyard followed by dinner and dancing, complete with a surprise visit from Tina Turner herself, at the top of the Stratosphere.

The real purpose of this final blog, however, is not my poor life choices, but instead to chronicle a whistle-stop tour of Mexican food in Southern California/Arizona. As we've pretty much had a moratorium on Mexican food in this household, after my ill-fated attempt to eat all the burritos in London, I was pretty excited to start with a sunny Sunday evening visit to the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, in Los Feliz.

It's a bold claim (and I'm not sure I've actually eaten one like this, to compare it to), but the eponymous fish taco was pretty good. So were the shrimp tacos, both lightly battered and freshly fried to order before being topped with a mix of shredded white cabbage, red radish, pineapple relish and 'la crema magica' from the DIY condiment station.

Even better were the veggie options (no, really), in the shape of the green papa taco - filled with a kind of spiced mashed potato - and the elote, a corn cob drenched in crumbled Mexican cheese, chilli and more crema. A shout out, too, for the two lovely guys working there. Admirably calm in the face of a constant queue while patiently deciphering our mangled pronunciation.

The sprawling metropolis we now know as La La Land started life on a much smaller scale when eleven families of pobladores - the original settlers - arrived from the Gulf of California to establish a pueblo that become the City of Los Angeles. You can still visit the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, including the famed Olvera Street, to see where the story all began.

Originally known as Wine Street, but later renamed for a renowned local judge, Olvera Street is a pretty place to take a wander. Particularly in late spring, before the temperatures soar and with the blossom on the trees against the bright blue Californian skies.

While the painted stalls may all be hawking generic ponchos, piñatas and pottery, making it down to the end brings the reward of Cielito Lindo, a small stall on the corner that is also known as the home of the taquito - a corn tortilla, stuffed and rolled and then deep fried until crisp - in the US.

The Ewing and I both went with the two taquito one tamale option, served with beans and cheese and their famous avocado sauce. While I feared  a plate of greasy stodge -more suited to soaking up several bottles of Sol than a light lunch – it was all excellent. 

Nothing fancy but just good, freshly cooked food that is clearly still just as popular with the Angelinos than tourists. A fact borne out by the fact we spent our visit surrounded by local ladies on their lunch break, picking up their taquitos with their perfectly manicured nails while putting the world to rights.

Our last brekkie in LA was at Texan transplant, Home State, home of the breakfast taco, but this is not bastardised Tex-mex food as we know it. Instead it features a range of rolled tacos, stuffed with a range of breakfast items such as eggs, beans and bacon and eaten in the morning, as well as migas - Mexican scrambled eggs with crispy corn strips - and homemade guacamole, queso and salsa to go with their homemade fried flour tortillas chips.

We both chose a brace of breakfast tacos, on Homestate flour tortillas, and continuing my love affair with egg, I chose the Trinity; organic eggs, bacon, potato, cheddar; and the Frio, with refried charro beans, bacon and monterey jack.  Both were good  but - annoyingly, as it so seldomly ever happens - the Ewing chose even better with the Pecos - organic eggs and shredded brisket.

We also had a Frito Pie, which for the uninitiated is a bag of Fritos (twisty strips of crunchy tortilla) split open and topped with chili con carne, cheddar, lettuce, sour cream, tomato, pickled jalapeño and pickled red onion. Basically nachos in a bag, and as good as it sounds. To drink was Topo Chico, a cult favourite sparkling water, bottled in Monterrey, Mexico. The Ewing thought it tasted like all fizzy water, but I bought the hype. Damn, this stuff was refreshing. 

Most people head to Sedona to hike around the stunning red rock formations, indulge their spiritual side with visits to the famous ‘energy vortexes’ or visit the art galleries and craft shops. While we made it to Cathedral in the Rocks (half an hour after it closed), my highlight was visiting the only McDonalds in the entire world that doesn’t have a yellow arch. Which is just as unique as other local landmarks such as Snoopy Rock, a formation that is supposed to resemble the beagle.

Of course I didn’t eat at Micky D’s (I probably would have had one of their sausage McGriddles, but it was past breakfast time…), but we did enjoy dinner at Torta de Fuego, a very decent Mexican restaurant, just down the road from our motel.

A torta is a kind of Mexican sandwich, and we know how I feel about sandwiches. Despite my passion, I forwent a sarnie on our visit, although I did end up having a burrito; which is essentially a wrap, which is essentially a sandwich anyway....

Full points for the condiment bar, full of salsas and sauces and chunks of limes and pickles radishes, but I’m taking away half a point away for putting it right by the door and half a point away for not giving us gratis tortilla chips (or asking if we wanted to order any), something I only noticed when I had picked up a rainbow array of sauces and had nothing to dunk into them. 

I was also quite amused by the customer who picked the only obviously English girl (obviously me) at the condiment bar, before launching into a monologue questioning what everything was, and then getting offended when I clearly had no idea. In case you were wondering I just pointed at what I hoped the most incendiary one was, and crossed my fingers it would burn. 

As for our food, the Ewing's camarones el diabalo really did burn. A great pile of giant shrimp in a deep crimson sauce, rich with smoky chillies, with a scorpion-like sting in the tail. An accompanying pile of refried beans, rice, salad and foil wrapped tortillas quenched the fire; slightly. As did the comically oversized sup of horchata, the sweet rice-based drink flavoured with cinnamon. There may have been tears, although they were (mostly) from happiness.

I had the Fuego burrito mojado, a burrito stuffed with carnitas with rice, beans, guacamole and pico de gallo, and topped with soured cream, mexican cheese and cilantro. No, I haven't turned American, but coriander isn't going to cut it in this situation. I ordered it off menu 'Christmas style' - topped with both green and red salsa - to make it look like I knew what I was talking about after the salsa bar debacle. I still didn't really know, but I knew I liked it.

While the Vegas food scene seems to centre around celebrity chefs and fancy high end dining and the obligatory all you can eat buffets, there are also a few lower-end gems that are worth looking out for. One of these is the lauded Tacos el Gordo, a small chain of taco stands that started in San Diego, and have recently successfully transplanted to The Strip.

While you can expect an endless queue for ballast at four in the morning, the fact we walked past it every day while heading up the strip meant we stopped in for a more civilised lunch. Made even more sophisticated by the fact we had met up with the magical Stealth, who was the only person in Nevada in May who was wearing tweed.

There are three queues when you get inside; one for the adobada - a huge rotating spit of pork marinated in brick red chilli - one for chorizo and carne asada. and one for all the organ meats, with bubbling cauldrons of beef breast and pig guts.

As well as the familiar tacos you can also order mules, which are a a thick tortilla 'sandwich' filled with meat, griddled cheese, guacamole, salsa, onions and cilantro - a vampiro is the same, but with extra crispy tacos. There are also sopes, corn cakes topped with the meat of your choice, and cheese smothered quesedillas.

We shared a box of their famed loaded fries piled with carne asada, soured cream and guacamole, as well as a slice of wobbly sweet flan, in a puddle of bitter caramel sauce. Of course we also had tacos; with tripe - surprisingly great, served as crispy strips, a little like calamari. We also had lengua, slices of soft tongue similar to corned beef (why is it that offal is always likened to something less 'awful'), that became the the Ewing's favourite after our honeymoon adventures in San Francisco.

As well as tongue, they also serve tacos topped with cheek and brain. So use your head and come here for the food but you may want to skip the woven woollen wear.